Cardinal show anything but ‘Ordinary’

By John Lyle Belden

For these unusual times, Cardinal Stage of Bloomington presents an unusual theatre experience.

Shown online on-demand through Feb. 21, Cardinal’s production of the musical “Ordinary Days” by Adam Gwon relies on technological wizardry to allow four actors to interact while performing their parts in Covid-safe separate locations. Set in New York, circa 2008, we meet four “ordinary” individuals who will have an extraordinary influence on one others’ lives.

Our introduction to them, and this play, initially struck us with an uneasy “what’s this?” feeling. The obviously green-screen NYC backdrop, with our struggling artist-slash-artist’s-assistant-slash-pamphleteer? singing about – what’s this about, again? – but he sure is eager. And wordy. This song could have been written better. And there’s just a single piano in the background. Why does this feel like an audition tape?

If it all seems puzzling to you as well, stick with it. It gets much better.

After Warren (Henry Miller) ends his song with a winning smile, we jump to frustrated grad student Deb (Nina Donville) singing the foundation of her character arc, then to Jason (Julian Diaz-Granados) and Claire (Kayla Marie Eilers) who we discover are moving in together. So that connects two of the characters, but how about the others? A lost-and-found, followed by an odd but artsy rendezvous, kicks off an unlikely relationship between two souls seeking their purpose in art and words. And by the time this hour and a half (no intermission) is over, one pair will affect the other in a subtle but profound way.

Donville delivers as a woman struggling with the expectations of others, and herself, brought to a personal crossroads by impish Warren, in whom Miller channels the “if I can make it there” spirit of the Big Apple, even when his perpetual optimism is challenged. Diaz-Granados’ Jason is a hopeful romantic, wishing to communicate the depth of his feelings for Claire, but instead, at the worst moment, blurts out a proposal. Eilers effectively presents Claire as someone yearning to move forward, but held by a nagging uncertainty. Under the direction of Cardinal Artistic Director Kate Galvin, Gwon’s plot gently weaves together these “ordinary” yet interesting lives with a gust of the wind through the high-rises.

Also tying the scenes and thematic threads together are music director Ray Fellman on piano, and video editor Alyssa V. Gomez of CO-OP Productions, who brilliantly creates character interaction in this strange (for live stage fans) medium. For the vocal harmonies, I’m guessing credit goes in part to sound editor Robert Hornbostel. Rounding out the crew is stage manager Corey Hollinger.

To experience “Ordinary Days,” go to CardinalStage.org, and gather around the screen for a $25 “household” ticket, but only through Sunday.

Searching for something to believe in at ‘Prospect Hill’

By John Lyle Belden

What or who do you have faith in? What is it telling you? And are you truly listening?

These questions of faith and the angels among us come alive in “Prospect Hill,” a new play by Bruce Walsh, presented by Fat Turtle at the IndyFringe Theatre.

Jacob is a therapist badly in need of help, himself. His husband, Rex, a cancer survivor whose last round of chemo left a particularly frustrating side effect, obsesses with kitchen renovations to avoid their waning relationship. Jacob has given up alcohol, but finds addictive urges satisfied by the constant snacks and sodas brought by his young patient, Ethan, a driver for PepsiCo.

And it doesn’t help that Jacob has been in contact with his Mennonite father, who doesn’t approve of him being gay, let alone his relationship.

Ethan has his own problems: His girlfriend is expecting their child, but now wants nothing to do with him, in part due to his drug addiction. He wants to make more to help support the baby, so, hearing that Rex retired from his sales job in his 50s, asks him for “financial advice.” Relishing the challenge, Rex sees the young man as a potential protege. 

But when the inevitable conflicts occur, a sort of miracle happens. Could Ethan be the “third angel” in their relationship?

Directed by Fat Turtle Managing Director Aaron Cleveland, our well-chosen trio of actors bring out three vivid characters, each searching for meaning in his own way.

Zachariah Stonerock presents the stoic Jacob as a miserable mensch who has been worn down over time, so occupied with pleasing others he has no idea how to be happy, himself. Going through the motions, he simply repeats a mindfulness exercise he had just heard from Rex in his session with Ethan — to hilarious effect — almost accidentally making a sort of breakthrough.

Craig Kemp as Rex counters with energy and humor, masking a deep desperation. He needs to feel vital. not only in his loins (another comic point), but in his mind, as his salesman’s instincts are aroused by the prospect of “selling” Ethan to his old pharma company as a potential employee. Meanwhile, despite proclaiming his atheism, he is hooked on a “six-part series” on PBS on the world’s religions, finding inspiration in spite of himself.

As for 20-ish Ethan, Evren Wilder Elliott* excellently presents a character who seems at first so simple, yet has depths and aspects that even surprise him. “I am here because I am a prophet,” Ethan says — to be fair, it wasn’t his idea — which seems absurd, until it isn’t. The actor channeled the insecurity of playing their first “male” role to convincingly give us a grown boy full of bluster and desire to do right, yet lacking the personal discipline to pull it off. 

This locally-based script (Prospect Hill is a neighborhood in Bloomington) makes an excellent debut, a nice blend of human drama with laugh-out-loud moments. It’s still a work in progress, as the ending seemed a little muddled, hinting at more story to tell (perhaps a sequel play or trilogy could come of this?), but it raises some interesting points on faith, relationships, and what we seek to do with our lives.

Performances run through Nov. 24 at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre, 719 E. St. Clair, downtown Indianapolis. Get info at fatturtletheatre.com and tickets at www.indyfringe.org.

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*Trans actor formerly known as A.M. Elliott